“When the steward tasted the water, it had become wine.”
This text has been a tricky one for those who want to claim that Jesus would never drink wine.
“Jesus didn’t drink wine,” I was told once as a teenager while attending youth group at a friend’s church. When we questioned, the minister claimed that the Greek word for “wine” didn’t mean “wine” at all… at least not like we would think of it. Based on his research, the word “wine” in Jesus’ day was a reference to a distillation process. So when we see wine mentioned in the New Testament, it’s really equivalent to our bottled water. Apparently Jesus had filled the barrels with Aquafina or Smart Water, or so this minister claimed.
Now, I understand the desire to encourage teenagers to make good choices about alcohol use. But in my experience — and youth, you can confirm this — you tend to know when someone is being irrational or absurd, and it doesn’t aid the argument.
So maybe this minister was being hyper moral, attempting to preserve that kind of morality that my grandfather once quoted to me from his adolescence. “I don’t drink or dance or chew and I don’t go with girls who do,” Papa said.
Or perhaps he and many others who have repeated this claim are looking for validation for their own choices. After all, if you’ve chosen to give up certain things or live a certain way, you want to imagine your Messiah would do the same.
Whatever the case, I wonder about that minister and so many others of us who can be like him. What does the image of a straight-laced, teetotaling, Aquafina Jesus say about our expectations of our Messiah, and our expectations of ourselves?
In the gospel of John, this is the first moment when Jesus exceeds all of the expectations. Traditionally known as Jesus’ first miracle, John deems it one of seven “signs” — so-called because these seven moments point beyond themselves to signify the character of God and to reveal the work of God in the world through Jesus. And, notice, this happens in the ordinary spaces of life. It happens as you are drawing water from wells, preparing food, tending sheep… or as you’re trying to figure out what to do when the wine runs out at a wedding celebration. You don’t have to go somewhere else to meet Jesus. Jesus doesn’t avoid your life and its significant moments. Jesus shows up at the wedding party.
Some years ago Johnny Carson, who hosted the Tonight Show for 30 years, was interviewing an eight-year-old boy one night. The young man had been asked to appear on the Late Show because he had rescued two friends from a coal mine outside his hometown in West Virginia. As Johnny questioned him, the boy was talking a lot about God and Jesus. So Johnny asked him if he attended Sunday school. When the boy said he did, Johnny inquired, “What are you learning in Sunday school?” “Last week,” the boy replied, “our lesson was about how Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.” The audience burst into laughter and applause. Keeping a straight face, Johnny Carson asked, “And what did you learn from that story?” The boy squirmed in his chair. He hadn’t thought about this, and wasn’t prepared to answer. But then he lifted up his face and said, “If you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus and Mary!”
Jenny and I attended a wedding of good friends this weekend, held right here in our sanctuary in fact, as Rev. Oliver Thomas of Providence Baptist Church here in Greensboro, and D’Najah Pendergrass Thomas were united in marriage in a joyful service that saw them dancing up the aisle as husband and wife to the song “Oh, Happy Day” with celebration continuing into the night with joy and dancing and a fabulous party. A wedding is so often one of those moments when we experience that. We experience something of what Jesus says later in John: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly” — have it literally in a way that overflows into the world.
And in this passage Jesus is saying “yes” to that abundance, not only with his attendance, but then in the moment when the barrels are empty and it seems all has run out, Jesus steps out of the corner to say “yes” once more to celebration, “yes” to joy, “yes” to abundance that overflows for all. You want Jesus at your wedding. And you want Jesus in your life. Because this theme of abundance doesn’t stop here in the gospel of John. These overflowing barrels are a sign of so much to come.
And so this abundance is known in chapter 5 by a man who had been ill for the 38 years of his life, but then comes to know life everlasting. In John 9, a man born blind and separated from his community becomes a sheep in Jesus’ fold, knowing the love of the Good Shepherd who always provides. Later in John, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, once dead in his tomb, comes to find himself alive and unbound and sharing at table. And then when everyone thought it was all over, and death had finally ended the celebration, and all had run dry, the disciples recognize the risen Jesus as they haul in a net filled abundantly with fish after a night of catching nothing and wondering everything.
That’s the abundant life what flows out from this wedding scene. And it’s there in the six huge basins – 180 gallons – of fantastic wine. No one, that is, would leave this wedding thirsty, for abundance and blessing were “filled to the brim.”
But if we look around the scene of joy and feasting, we notice that for Jesus, a life abundant is also a life shared. In the gospel of John, abundance always leads to relationship. It’s never just about you and Jesus. It’s not individualized or private. Life abundant is about bringing us into relationships with one another, and particularly with those once rejected, abandoned, forgotten, marginalized. When you know the kind of abundance that Jesus points to, you also notice when it is absent in others.
That’s what Jesus can see at this wedding in the small Galilean city of Cana. This is not a wedding with overflowing tables and grand food. This is the kind of wedding where they run out of wine, which is the kind of wedding that you would expect from most people in Galilee.
The historian Warren Carter has estimated that in Jesus’ day 2-3 percent of the population was wealthy, while the vast majority lived a subsistence life, hand to mouth, praying for daily bread, and scraping together what they could to celebrate a wedding until the jars ran out. (1) These were people, you see, who did not often experience abundance. And Jesus notices them. And Jesus can see that these people thirst, too.
Jesus causes jars to overflow for them, and not just with the cheap wine — the boxed stuff that was normally brought out late in the party when the guests tastes were less discerning. No, this is “the best wine” the steward says. The best wine — because that’s what Jesus came to provide for them: the best.
My freshman year in college, a friend of mine began to notice the number of people who were poor and sleeping outside near our downtown campus, and was moved to try to respond. So my friend, Bob, came back from fall break with a small camping stove and shared his plan to begin a Tuesday Night cookout downtown for anyone who was hungry. Up for anything, several of us went with Bob that first Tuesday, and then another, and one more until it became a weekly occurrence and the gathering became well known as “Bob’s Barbecue” throughout the area. It was always in a different location, as you can imagine an open flame and a line of hungry people were not always welcome in the same place each week. It started with us walking around inviting any and all, but soon it became a regular meal with a sense of community and friendship shared along with the food.
As a first-year college student, there were no shortage of lessons for me about the advantages of my life, the blind spots with which I lived, and all the times I had failed to notice the reality of poverty. Like early on, when I couldn’t understand that some of those who came to eat were very specific about how their hot dogs were prepared. Some wanted the mustard a particular way, while others would open the bun to inspect to make sure the hot dog had enough char. “Not this one, send it back” one man, Bill, would say, asking us to cook it til it was “well done” and burned all over. I remember my shock that my Oscar Meyer offering wasn’t just accepted and appreciated. Isn’t something better than nothing?
Well, no. Not according to Jesus. If we follow in his way, we don’t offer what is easy or convenient. We offer abundance. “You have kept the best until now,” the steward says.
“The poorest deserve the best.” This is the claim of Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It’s a claim repeated in his Christmas Sermon from 2006, and it was first inspired on a trip to Bethlehem. He was holding a newborn baby, who had been abandoned by his mother, found by the side of the road and taken into the St Vincent Creche, which is attached to Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. The child was there along with dozens of other children who had been similarly abandoned. This hospital cares for such children in the best-resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, and Archbishop Williams was struck by the juxtaposition of such challenge and lack with the very best standard of care. He mentioned his surprise to Dr. Robert Tabash, the medical director, as they stood over an incubator in the intensive ward. Dr. Tabash quickly replied that all of this was important, simply because “the poorest deserve the best.”
Archbishop Williams reflected on this: “‘The poorest deserve the best’: when you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is. They do not deserve what’s left over when the more prosperous have had their fill, or what can be patched together on a minimal budget as some sort of damage limitation. And they don’t ‘deserve’ the best because they’ve worked for it and everyone agrees they’ve earned it. They deserve it simply because their need is what it is and because where human dignity is least obvious it’s most important to make a fuss about it. And — to put it as plainly as possible — this is probably the most radically unique and new thing that Christmas [Christ] brings into the world.” (2)
It’s so radical that it once turned water into wine. I don’t know if it can turn charred hot dogs into filet mignon, but I wonder what it might spark in our lives.
Walter Brueggemann has said that the great human dilemma of our time – as it has always been – is the conflict between abundance and scarcity. So often in our world we see a mindset of scarcity, which assumes there’s not enough to go around, that the best things need to be stored, and kept, and hoarded for one’s self. It breeds anxiety, fear, greed and a life that seems to care only for itself.
But over against this is the story of God’s generous love, and the biblical witness of abundance. The Bible begins with praise for God’s generosity, singing out in Genesis, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.” It declares that God blesses the entire earth and all humankind, and it pictures the creator saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” — a charge that echoes in the words of Jesus toward abundant life. (3)
And so, we are left to decide which story will govern our lives.
It might be easier to believe Jesus never drank wine. Jesus never feasted. He never gathered together with the dejected or ostracized and opened up bottles with them to listen to their stories late into the night. Because a limited Jesus is one I can better understand. His life looks more like mine. A restrained Jesus allows me to keep my expectations low and not get my hopes too high for an abundant feast. After all, if I’ve lived my life a certain way, I want to imagine my Messiah would do the same. And maybe I so often imagine a limited, straight-laced, Aquafina Jesus, because that’s the one who is more likely to let me remain as I am. He’s far less likely to call me to start to live my life by this story of abundance where the best things to do with the best things in life is to offer them; where you notice not only the abundance in your life, but the absence of it in others; where if you want to find your life, you must be prepared to give it away — overflowing into the world — and find it returning to you as something new and reborn.
That’s what happens to those followers who see water become wine. “The disciples believed in him,” verse 11 says. As Peter Gomes has pointed out, the greatest miracle in this passage is not Jesus’ transformation of water into wine, but his transformation of his disciples’ thinking. This moment transforms what those who would follow him from there believe about him, about their world, and ultimately about themselves. For those so content simply to ask only for water of a Messiah, and expect only the bare minimum of themselves, Jesus sets out overflowing barrels and begins to tell them about this abundant life.
Through the life of Christ and the miracle of God’s spirit these followers begin to move beyond survival in their day to day and know this life beyond the way things are and have always been. That’s why this first sign points beyond itself to the cross, resurrection and glory ahead. At Cana, the gift is wine. But the sign propels us forward to the hour and time when the gift is new life.
And on that final night he gathers them at the table with bread — and with wine you might have noticed. He says, “When you drink it, remember me… Remember how the barrels overflowed, yes, but even more how my life overflowed for you…and let that life become your life.”
This morning the invitation extends to all of us at the wedding. Let us remember we follow one who looked at each of us and saw that we thirst, too… stepped to the center of the party to proclaim abundance… and now calls us to live in the same way ourselves.
And as we step out to follow this one who turned water into wine, let us never be the ones who turn wine into water. (4)
- Warren Carter, Roman Empire, p.1-15
- Archbishop Rowan Williams, “Christmas Day Sermon 2006 – ‘The Poorest Deserve the Best’”
- Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century (March 24-31, l999)
- “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” – Sören Kierkegaard